February 4, 2009 / 12:24 PM / 11 years ago

Iraq must focus on reconstruction upkeep, U.S. says

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq must ensure it can maintain costly public works and avoid errors that marred past reconstruction efforts backed by billions of dollars of U.S. aid, the senior U.S. military engineer in the country says.

The U.S. military has placed new emphasis on making sure that Iraqi officials, from engineers to ministers, spend more time and money on operations and maintenance, said Major General Michael Eyre, Army Corps of Engineers commander in Iraq.

The Iraqi government was now setting aside funds to ensure facilities used to generate power, treat water or provide health care can yield desperately needed services.

“They’re making that commitment toward that,” he said in an interview late Tuesday..

Workers must be trained to operate expensive equipment and contracts must include warranties and spare parts.

“These are things that weren’t done previously.”

As the violence that has gripped Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion subsides, Iraqis are focusing more than ever on basic services still lacking despite U.S. relief and reconstruction efforts worth about $50 billion since 2003.

The special U.S. inspector general for Iraq concluded in a study this week that the United States largely failed to meet goals set after the invasion to rebuild Iraqi public works.

It found that efforts to improve electricity and oil output, perhaps the two most important bellwethers of progress in Iraq after the level of violence, have fallen short despite the “sea of taxpayer dollars” spent by the Bush administration.

While rampant violence crippled reconstruction, much of blame has also gone to poorly coordinated U.S. projects, waste in the U.S. contracting system and, to some extent, fraud. In one case, a $32 million wastewater project in western Iraq fell years behind schedule and tripled in cost.

TO THE BREAKING POINT

Another problem seen again and again has been Iraq’s failure to properly operate and maintain reconstruction projects and, more generally, costly public works.

Such problems are often blamed on Saddam Hussein’s decades-long rule, when sanctions meant repair parts were often unobtainable and when a culture of fear prompted officials to provide services like electricity at all costs.

“What we’ve seen often is that there’s a tendency to run equipment until it breaks then buy anew, rather than spend a lot of effort to maintain it. That’s one of the lessons we’ve learned,” said Richard Hancock, Corps program director.

In just one case last year, a $20 million power turbine, purchased under Saddam but well within its lifespan, burned out in a flash when power plant operators failed to respond to a problem. Proper training could have prevented that.

“The Iraqi government, the ministries, have recognized the importance of the maintenance function and they are putting both energy and funding toward that now,” Hancock said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which since it began work in Iraq in 2004 has managed about $7 billion in infrastructure and reconstruction projects, has now shifted efforts to overseeing mainly Iraqi-funded projects.

Yet even in 2009, many in Baghdad have just a few hours of grid power a day. Oil output was 2.58 million bpd before the invasion; it is now 2.3 million to 2.4 million bpd.

Editing by Angus MacSwan

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